The Valerie Plame Affair is alive and well

Over the past several weeks, there has been almost nothing in the media about the investigation of the revelation, almost certainly by senior officials in the Bush White House, of the identity of a CIA officer acting under non-official cover. (There’s been lots of irrelevant nonsense from the fans of Team Bush, and their media dupes, about the decision by Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, to appear in Vanity Fair, but nothing about the investigation itself.)

That raised the question of whether the probe had been effectively killed by Attorney General Ashcroft, or alternatively had simply run into a blank wall. I’ve remained cautiously optimistic that the truth will come out, but since optimism is among my besetting sins and I had no actual information to share, I saw no reason to clog up this space with mere speculation.

My answer to the dozen or so emails I have received asking about where the scandal stood has been consistent: If we don’t hear something from the Justice Department by the time Congress gets back in January, I expect Schumer et al. to start kicking up a fuss again.

However, that wasn’t the only possible outcome. By clamping a tight lid on news about the investigation, the Attorney General didn’t do the investigation itself any harm, but he deprived the story about it of fresh develpments, the oxygen any story needs to stay alive in the legitimate press. (That’s the advantage the VWRC gets from owning truly tame media outlets that don’t even pretend to be guided by judgments of objective news value; it can keep a story, or non-story, alive on fumes.)

There was a legitimate worry that, with press attention elsewhere, the investigation could be quitely strangled, and that Congressional attempts to stir up a fuss about the successful cover-up would be buried under a blizzard of columns and blog entries about “partisanship.”

Not to worry. Like the proverbial stopped clock, my optimism occasionally coincides with reality. Mike Allen and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who have “owned” this story since it emerged from the Blogosphere, report today that the Justice Department has added a fourth prosecutor to the Plame Affair team, and is planning to call a grand jury.

The White House professes to be unworried, which I would say has to be 95% bluff. Whoever talked to Allen and Milbank is right that if indictments can be postponed until after November the political damage will be minor, but it’s hard to see what could stall things that long. As to the thought that indictments now would be too far from the election to matter politically, that seems to me crazily wishful thinking.

Allen and Milbank mention that a classified State Department document — apparently containing false information — has shown up in Republican-friendly media. Someone should remind whoever in the White House is running the damage control operation of the scope of the law of conspiracy. Leaking almost always goes unpunished, as it almost always should. But an illegal leak that is part of the effort to damage Joseph Wilson and to cover up how that damage was done might be charged as part of a conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and people who think they’re just doing their PR jobs could wind up with several years (without the possibility of parole) to think again.

[Thanks to Brad DeLong for the pointer, and to Michael Froomkin who seems to have had it first.]

If you’re coming in late, here’s a summary of the Valerie Plame Affair with lots of links. It’s the start of a thread on Open Source Politics that tries to boil down the story with a minimum of inter-blog backchat.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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